Car wreck made Casey's UK career a 'what if?'

The record books say Adolph Rupp lost his last, best chance for the fifth NCAA championship he coveted on March 14, 1970.

That is when a Dan Issel- and Mike Pratt-led Kentucky team ranked No. 1 in the country lost a 106-100 heartbreaker to Artis Gilmore and Jacksonville in the NCAA Tournament Mideast Region finals.

But Kentucky fans of a certain vintage know the record books tell only part of the story. That fifth national title the aging Rupp so craved was probably lost on July 30, 1969.

On that day, Mike Casey, UK's star guard, headed west from Lexington on I-64 toward his hometown of Shelbyville.

As he recounted the story to me in a 2004 interview, Casey was headed home to show off the new Camaro he had financed against what he thought would be his future pro basketball earnings.

He never got to show off his new ride. Pulling off at the second Shelbyville exit, a tire on Casey's car blew out.

The resulting wreck left Casey with a badly mangled left leg. It also cost UK its best chance to interrupt the John Wooden-era UCLA national championship dynasty.

"Really costly," former UK coach Joe B. Hall, who in 1969 was a Kentucky assistant, said Monday of the Casey wreck.

"That was such a good team, and Issel, Pratt and Casey worked so well together. We thought we had a team that could go the distance. What happened with Mike was really sad."

Casey, Kentucky's 1966 Mr. Basketball and the 13th all-time leading scorer (1,535 points) in UK's regal hoops history, died last Thursday at age 60 of heart failure.

His funeral will be Tuesday (April 14) in the gymnasium of Shelby County High, the school he led to the 1966 state championship.

Before the ill-fated day when he guided his Camaro onto that I-64 exit, Casey was living the ultimate commonwealth hoops fantasy.

A raw-boned Kentucky farm boy, Casey learned basketball by shooting at a hoop on the side of his family's barn.

By the time he got to a consolidated Shelby County High School, he joined with classmate Bill Busey as the foundation of one of the best high school teams in Kentucky history.

The pair led the Rockets to the 1965 state finals, where they fell to Butch Beard and Breckinridge County.

A 6-foot-3 guard, Casey entered his senior year as one of the most coveted recruits in the nation. Yet the battle for his services was fairly tame.

Before his senior year, Casey told Rupp and assistant Harry Lancaster he would come to Kentucky so long as they left him alone during his final high school season so he could concentrate on winning the state title.

After Shelby County did just that, Casey committed to UK.

"They did what I asked," Casey said of Rupp and Co., "so I kept my word, too."

Though it's largely forgotten now, Casey was the best player in the Issel-Casey-Pratt recruiting class at the start of their careers.

In an age of freshman ineligibility, the UK varsity went 13-13 in 1966-67. "Casey was the No. 1 player on that freshman team," Hall said.

The next year, Casey averaged 20.1 points, Issel 16.4 and Pratt 14.1 as the Kentucky varsity rebounded to go 22-5.

"Case was just the consummate basketball player," Pratt said Monday. "He knew every position on the floor. He never had to worry about athleticism because he was always two, three steps ahead of everybody else."

For modern UK fans, Pratt once said that Casey combined the scoring punch of Jeff Sheppard with the toughness and nose for the basketball of Gerald Fitch.

Said Hall: "Mike Casey was just a bulldog on the floor."

As a junior, Issel emerged with the form that would make him, arguably, the best player ever to play at Kentucky. He averaged almost 27 points a game; Casey was the team's second leading scorer at 19.1.

Still, with all their success, the Issel-Casey-Pratt teams fell short in their first two efforts to make the Final Four.

That was supposed to change in their senior years. Even more, the 1970 NCAA Tournament figured to be a target of championship opportunity.

A dominant UCLA center named Lew Alcindor (you know him as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) graduated in 1969. The next great Bruins big man, Bill Walton, would not come along until the 1971-72 season.

So 1969-70 shaped up as Kentucky's year — right up until Casey pointed his Camaro down that I-64 exit on that July day.

It was the left rear tire that blew out.

The car spun.

At that time, Casey recalled in 2004, the street lights that lined the exit were supported with concrete bases.

"That concrete came through the door," Casey said. "My leg got trapped. Broke my fibula and my tibia. Compound fracture. It was through the skin. Twice."

Even now, Kentucky backers with some gray in the hair can tell you exactly where they were when they heard the news about Mike Casey's wreck.

"Yesterday, we had a brilliant chance of going all the way," Rupp told the Lexington Herald on the night of the crash. "Tonight, it's not looking all that good."

So while Issel and Pratt closed out their careers getting their hearts broken by Jacksonville, Casey sat out as a medical redshirt.

He returned the following year and averaged 17 points for the UK team that got run out (107-83) of the 1971 NCAA tourney by Western Kentucky.

But he was not the same player. "I lost my quick first step," Casey said in 2004.

After basketball, Casey returned to Shelbyville. Over the years, he became well known in our state's education circles from selling class rings (and other items) to high schools and their students for Balfour.

Long after the high school students he was selling to had no memory of Casey as a Cat, "their parents still remembered," he said. "Or their grandparents. Being a Kentucky basketball player opened a lot of doors."

The father of a grown daughter, Casey was divorced. Up until his heart problems prevented it, he lived a vigorous life filled with outdoor activities.

"He loved to hunt, loved to play golf with his clients, loved to work in his garden," Pratt said. "The last couple years, with his heart, it was really hard on him. He'd say 'I've got no energy.' He just couldn't live the life he had always lived."

In University of Kentucky basketball lore, Mike Casey will always be associated with a haunting what if?

What if he weren't in that wreck? Is there another national championship banner hanging in Rupp Arena now?

"With Case, I think we'd have gotten to UCLA (in the 1970 finals)," Pratt says. "If we'd gotten there with Case, I'd say it was 50-50. We'd have had a good shot."

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